Tag Archives: description

Vivid vs. Violet Verbiage — The Violet

As S.K. noted in her last blog post…it’s been a crazy end to the old year and an even crazier start to the new year for us around here.  Apologies for being MIA…

At any rate, today I want to talk about something I’ve said I want to talk about many times in the past — the habit of writing vivid prose.  Now, to approach this topic properly, we first need to distinguish vivid prose from amethystine cabochons of literary splendor.  Yes.  We want to know what makes prose purple, and what makes it perfect.

So, in this post, I will give a brief overview of purpleness in prose.  Next time I’ll talk about real ways to bring your prose to life.

Purple prose, in case you aren’t quite clear on the meaning, is the habit of emblazoning the folia of your illustrious manuscript with ostentatious expressions of literary genius.  I.e., it means overwriting everything.  It means looking up every adjective, every verb, every noun in the thesaurus and pinpointing the one that sounds the most snobbishly pretentious and erudite, on the assumption that it will make your prose more “sophisticated.”  It doesn’t.  It makes it sound ridiculous.

Besides, you run the risk of using a word that has entirely the wrong meaning for what you’re trying to convey — but because it’s listed as a synonym for the word you should have used, you assumed it has the same connotation.  It may not.  And someone who actually knows the meaning of the word is just going to laugh at you for being a rube.  Sorry, but it’s the cold hard truth.

Imagine that I wanted to describe a character as chubby.  So I look up “chubby” in the thesaurus and go through and…hmm, brawny is a great word!  Yes, it’s listed as a synonym with chubby under the word, “fleshy.”  So, without doing a double-check on my chosen word, I plop it into my sentence: “The brawny little woman with small round eyes…”  Um.  No.  That would not be the image I’m trying to convey.

Besides the risk of sounding like an idiot, purple prose can actually defeat the purpose of good writing.  I read a story once where the author used that word I used earlier — cabochon — to describe tears.  Okay, is cabochon a good word in a sense to describe a teardrop?  Maybe, in this way: a cabochon is a gemstone that has been polished into a smooth shape, rather than being faceted.  Okay, a teardrop isn’t exactly faceted, so, yeah.  Technically, you could describe a teardrop as a cabochon.  Now, does that make it good fiction writing?

No.

Why not?  Well, when you’re writing about a deep emotion, like grief or mourning, over-describing can actually work against you.  It puts up barriers between the reader and the character.  It makes the reader pay attention to the prose, rather than what the prose is saying.  So, instead of feeling the character’s grief, the reader sits back and wonders, “What the heck is a cabochon?”  NOT the effect you want.

Purple prose is notorious for distancing the reader from the story.  Using a great vocabulary is one thing.  Using inappropriately grandiose vocabulary is something else entirely.

One final note.  A writer might think purple prose makes them sound smart, but readers are actually quite adept at detecting pseudo-intellectual fluff.  They can smell purple prose a mile away.  If they get even the slightest whiff of a sense that you’re using words you don’t really understand just to make your prose sound loftier, you will not see the end of their ridicule.

Writers ye be warned.

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Editing Focus 4: Syllabic Editing

Okay.  So.  Long overdue editing blog post: check.

This is the last Editing Focus blog post we’ll have for our Fall Blog Fest…so…hope you enjoy it!  It’s my personal favorite, as far as annoying things like editing are concerned.  😉

Syllabic editing isn’t something you’ll hear talked about a whole lot.  I first heard about it from the amazing writer/teacher/mentor Dave Farland, who has really taught me so much about the business and the…well, business…of writing.

So what is syllabic editing?  It sounds mystical and amazing, so what exactly does it involve?

Quite simply, it’s listening.  I’m not trying to be flippant.  Writing is an oral and an aural art.  Most of us, when we read, do at least some amount of subvocalization.  We listen to stories as we read them, even if we’re not reading them out loud.  But more than that, we notice things like rhythm and cadence and musicality — it’s just our nature.  Our brains are designed for that.  Just think about how most storytelling has been done throughout human history.  It was an oral art before it ever got written down.  Language is meant to be spoken.  And it’s meant to be beautiful.

When we look at syllabic editing, we’re actually focused on a couple of things.  One is flow, and one is conciseness and focus — on the level of the sentence, not on the level of the story.  I’ll look at the conciseness issue first.

Here we’re actually looking at the sentence and saying, “Am I conveying this idea as clearly as I can in as few words as I can?”  Now, this doesn’t mean we have to strip our style down to postmodern minimalism or anything, unless that is — God help you — your true style.  I’m also not saying you should excise every single adverb or adjective.  But it does mean you can get rid of useless words that tend to clutter up the stream, like little dams that choke up and bog down the story as you try to drift through it.

For instance, if you have two characters in conversation, you don’t need to say: “Bob smiled at Anna.”  You can just say, “Bob smiled,” unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story that the reader knows he’s smiling at Anna — for instance, if Bob has a phobia of smiling at people but for some reason smiles at Anna just now.  You see.  Cutting out those two words is a syllabic cut.  You’re trimming down the number of syllables so that what is conveyed is what is most important.

I think a lot of this kind of editing comes from accommodating editors/publishers who insist on a certain word count for submissions.  So, if Publisher Bob only accepts manuscripts up to 100K words and your masterpiece is 110K words, well, you need to find 10K useless words to scratch.  But even if you’re self-publishing, you should go through your manuscript with the same brutality….err…..care.  Set yourself a word limit and then find all the places where you can cut.

Limits are a lot like deadlines.  They can be incredibly powerful motivators.  And the best thing is, the tighter your manuscript is, the better it is.  Always.  Trust me.  You might make a macro cut — like excising a whole scene — that you later regret, but I’ve never come across a situation where I regretted cutting out “at Anna.”

Now, the other part of syllabic editing — and the part I think is the most interesting — is what gives that first part a positive quality, so that you’re “adding by subtracting,” as they say, and not just subtracting.  In other words, you want your prose not only to get from Point A to Point B in the most concise way possible (for your particular style/tone), but also to get there as effortlessly as possible.  And I mean effortless on the part of the reader.  A well-made movie doesn’t draw attention to itself on a mechanical level, but lets you simply live the story.  Likewise, a good novel should sweep the reader along without giving them any reason to stop and say, “Wait, why did he write that sentence like that?”

So, look.  The goal of syllabic editing is not to go from, “Bob wandered in meandering lines through the cool autumn mist with a slow, steady stride, drinking in the intoxicating scent of coming snow in the wind” to “Bob walked home through the mist.  It smelled like snow.”  Fewer syllables, yes.  Better writing?  No.  Now, “Bob wandering through the cool autumn mist, etc.” is not really good writing either.  It’s actually kind of awful.  But to correct it, you want to listen to the way the sounds fall on your inner ear, and go from there.  Test out your potential revisions.  Taste them.  Roll the syllables around on your tongue, and find the one that packs the biggest punch.

My Bob sentence above has a major problem.  It stutters and gasps and falls on its face.  My mental tongue trips over the syllables.  The words don’t sound right to me.  Reading them makes me wince and take out my mental red pen.  So how would I fix it?  Well, for one thing, watching out for prepositional phrases is usually a good place to start.  If you’ve got a sentence that strings together more than two prepositional phrases in a row, or maybe three at the most, you should look at restructuring the sentence.  “Should” pretty much meaning “must” in this scenario.

So.

Bob wandered in meandering lines…

Okay.  I don’t need to put the “meandering lines” bit in there.  It’s superfluous.  I already know he’s wandering, which suggests he’s not walking with a definite purpose.  So, SLASH. Continue reading


Editing Focus 3: Line Editing

Sorry this is late in appearing, everyone…that’s what this annoying little thing called…”LIFE”… will do to a person.  O.o

So, I’ve been working on beta reading S.K.’s awesome new book, The Lords of Askalon (can’t WAIT for all of you to be able to read it!).  Beta reading for me is mostly line-editing.  However, since I generally only have time to do a once-over, I usually try to work in syllabic editing and at least some consistency editing (did you really mean “north” here???:).  But most of what I’m doing is looking at the mechanics of the writing, and making sure that the prose is as tight and vibrant as possible.  I promised to share with you my tips and techniques, so that line-editing can be a little less of a headache for you.  Here you go.

First thing’s first: whenever you’re going to do a significant edit on your book, SAVE A COPY OF YOUR MANUSCRIPT.  You don’t want to experience the horror of slashing all of Chapter 9 and saving over your only file, only to realize…”Oh no!  I really wanted to recycle that one passage into another chapter.”  Save it as “MyAwesomestNovel_EDIT” or something.  Then when you’ve got it edited to perfection, save it (again) as “MyAwesomestNovel_FINAL” or whatever.  I’m obsessive about that.  Any time I make significant changes to my story, I save a revision document.

Scanning Edits

Okay, this isn’t really a step one, but it’s kind of a….macro-y sort of line-edit, so I’ll talk about it first.  One of the first things I’ll try to do when I start editing is It’s basically a sort of page-scan.  This means that I’m not actually reading so much as doing a sort of visual pattern search.

For instance, I’ll scan over all the dialogue on the page.  If I see too many modifiers, too many dialogue tags, I’ll start slashing them.  This is one of my personal banes — using too many adverbs (he said thinly/ flatly/ harshly/ sharply/ gently/ whatever-ly), or too many descriptive verbs (he snapped/ laughed/ demanded/ lamented).

My general rule — if I were to have a rule — would be to see no more than one or two of either of these things on a page, or per chunk of dialogue.  I prefer when action frames some of the lines of dialogue (He shrugged. “Who cares?”), rather than dialogue tags.  Then you can use context to identify the next speaker…except where you need to introduce a newcomer to the reader.  So:

Bob and Milo sat quietly for a while, constrained in uncomfortably close quarters.  Milo sighed and fidgeted.
“Where are we going?”
“I have no idea.  No. Idea.”
George glanced at them in the rearview of his Mini.  “Chill out, guys, we’re just going to grab some donuts!”

Now, that does the trick, right?  Right before the dialogue starts, we’re talking about Milo, so we can safely assume that he’s the first one to speak.  Then, Bob has to answer, because he’s the only other character we know.  But I can use an action frame to introduce George — and also to start solving the mystery of why Bob and Milo are feeling so uncomfortably constrained squashed.

So if I’m scanning the page and see several lines of dialogue that elaborate too much, I’ll start cutting.  I’m exceptionally brutal about this, because, as I said, it was the bane of my writerly existence for years.

ALSO.  Don’t be afraid of the word “said.”  It’s perfectly fine.  It doesn’t always need to modified, either.  I’d say…35% the time you don’t need anything modifying the dialogue.  25% of the time, just say said!  25% of the time you can use an action frame.  15% of the time you can use a colorful “speaking” verb, like “demand, snap, whisper” etc.  Anyway, different people have different preferences…just watch out for going overboard in any direction.  ALL of these are problematic:

“I went to the store today,” George said.
“That’s nice,” Bob said.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

AND:

George frowned and slammed his hand on the door.  “I went to the store today!”
“That’s nice.”  Bob’s face lit with a malicious grin.
Milo squirmed, nervous.  “I went to the store yesterday.”

AND:

“I went to the store today,” George whined.
“That’s nice,” Bob sneered.
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo announced.

But this is sort of better (if we can salvage this idiotic dialogue…):

George speared a glare at Bob. “I went to the store today.”
“That’s nice.”
“I went to the store yesterday,” Milo said.

You get the idea.

Also in the scanning edits, I watch for snippets or phrases that might tend to get repeated overly-repeated snippets or phrases.  This includes phrases like: shrugged, frowned, shook (his) head, sighed, grimaced, groaned, etc.

Generally I don’t want to see more than one character doing any of these things more than once in any particular scene…or at least make sure that you give some solid distance between instances.  If everyone’s constantly shaking their heads and nodding, I’m going to assume they are Bobbleheads.  And yes.  This is one that I have to be extra-careful about, because I do it a lot.  It’s especially hard if you write in fits and starts.  If you don’t make sure to reread your previous few pages before starting again, you risk repeating phrases that you didn’t remember using.

Also watch for consecutive sentences starting the same way.  If you’re scanning a paragraph and see: “He…   .  He…  .  He…”, then you have a problem.  Even worse would be: “He was… .  He was… . He was…”  AGH!  Death.  Try to avoid starting multiple sentences with the same word/grammatical structure.  It gets quite annoying.

So basically, this step is just my eye scanning over the pages, looking for things that are visually….disturbing.   You’d be surprised what you can catch this way, which you might not when you’re actually reading.

Continue reading


Dressing the Set(ting)

I happened to catch a fascinating show the other day on the DIY Network – Hollywood Builders.  They were following the construction of the sets for the new Total Recall movie, and I found it riveting (pun intended).  Watching the set electricians wire up the set for futuristic lighting, watching CGI transform a “green screen” backdrop…it’s stunning.  Really stunning.  But I found the segment on set dressing most fascinating.  The set dressers are responsible for making a set look like real by their attention to every conceivable visual detail.  In this case, they were dressing the marketplace set – using everything from swimming goggles to a martini shaker to baskets of some kind of dried fruit.  Will Douglas Quaid (the main character, played by Colin Farrell) interact with these tiny details?  No.  Most of these details simply form a backdrop – something the eye will catch in a glimpse as the characters interact in the foreground.  But, were these details lacking, there would be a hiccup in our suspension of disbelief, jeopardizing our engagement in and enjoyment of the film.

How does the idea of “set dressing” play out in a novel or short story?  It goes without saying that a story with ineffective or insufficient description will be drab and lifeless.  So how do we write successful, incredible, imagination-filling settings without using pages and pages and pages of description?

First, we have to remember that the written word is actually a visual medium, though not in the direct way that film is a visual medium.  The reader has to translate the words on the page into an image in his or her head.  When I say the word “tree”, for example, you form a picture of a tree in your head.  Now, the writer’s job is to try to ensure that this translation is as accurate as possible, so that whatever the writer is transcribing out of his or her own head makes it intact into the reader’s head.  So, to return to my example, if I write “tree” and want to evoke the image of a birch, but you see the word “tree” and imagine an aspen, I haven’t conveyed things precisely enough.  If I want you to imagine a birch tree, I need to write “birch tree”.

This brings us to our second consideration.  The writer also has to follow the principle of economy in description.  If I were to describe the Total Recall marketplace set in the sort of painstaking detail that the set dressers used in creating it, I would lose all of my readers within minutes.  They would be snoring with their noses in the pages (or snotting up the screen of their e-reader of choice).  No one wants to read ten pages of pure description – or even ten paragraphs, for that matter.  As an author, though, I desperately want the reader to see what I see when I imagine a scene, so the temptation to over-describe is intense.  How can I convey a setting in all its rich detail without boring my readers to death?

Choose setting details like you’d choose antiques: keep them few in number, but make each one priceless.  

Consider what you notice first when you walk into a room.  Is it the lighting, the flooring material, the way sound echoes (or doesn’t), what adorns the walls?  Then consider how you could make each of these details count.  Remember, no matter what you’re writing, you are constructing a world.   Be vivid.  Use a few chosen aspects of your setting to illuminate the rest.

So, if you’re going to mention the lighting, be precise: is it an oil lamp, an LED panel, or a torch?  If you’re going to mention that your character has a lot of books, give us a sense of the predominant type: does he have cookbooks, or the complete works of Jane Austen, or mathematics texts? The precision of these details reveals or enhances your setting and your characters.  Choose details that do more than just look pretty – for really power-packed, punchy fiction, make your setting details do some heavy lifting.

To offer an example of the brilliant use of this technique (again from film), consider how Holmes cracks Moriarty’s code in Game of Shadows by observing the contradiction of the dying plants in the window with the prominence of the horticulture book in Moriarty’s office.  These two details and their correlation reveal something about both Holmes and Moriarty and advance the plot, all at the same time.  Not every setting detail is going to be this powerful, but it’s a good reminder of the enormous potential that precise, vivid setting description carries.

So, as you dress your settings, focus on details that can reveal your characters, advance your plot, or capture your world, and then let the reader color in the rest of the picture on his own.